Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel is the big favorite to retain his Dakar Rally title with the gruelling 13-stage race due to start today.
Peterhansel’s victory last year was his 11th in the Dakar, five coming behind the wheel of a car, most recently a Mini, and six between 1991 and 1998 on a Yamaha motorbike.
However, the 48-year-old insisted there were “at least five competitors who could win the Dakar [car section] this year.”
“Three of them are in my team,” Peterhansel said in reference to Qatar’s 2011 winner Nasser al-Attiyah, Spaniard Nani Roma [motorbike winner in 2004 and second in the car section in 2012] and Argentina’s Orlando Terranova.
South African Giniel de Villiers, three times a runner-up in his Toyota, and Spain’s two-time world rally champion Carlos Sainz will also be contenders, Peterhansel said.
“The first difficulty will be the route, which is longer and more intense,” he said.
The 13-stage race, with a single rest day, is 9,374km long for cars, with more than 5,500km of timed special sections.
“The second difficulty will be Nasser [al-Attiyah]. He’s a formidable opponent, but always dangerous and it’s much better to have him in the team,” he added.
“In this race, each kilometer is a minefield. It’s difficult to say which stage will be the toughest. I fear them all and each race is hard to win,” Peterhansel said.
More than 400 vehicles — cars, motorbikes, quad bikes and trucks — are to take part in the race from today through Jan. 18. It is the sixth Dakar event to be held in South America.
The rally begins in Rosario, Argentina, and ends in the Chilean resort city of Valparaiso, with five special stages marked out on completely separate routes, with motorbikes and quads on one hand and cars and trucks on the other.
Overall, the “separation” includes about 2,000km of timed sections, covering more than 40 percent of the distance, and the bikers will also cross into Bolivia.
Organizers say that “in sporting terms, this has the double advantage of taking motorcycle and quad riders onto more technical and narrower tracks during some stages, while enabling the leaders of the car race to ‘hit the trail’ without using the tracks left by the two-wheelers.”
Cyril Despres, a five-time winner of the motorbike section, said this year’s edition was a “massive challenge,” not least because he changed from KTM to Yamaha, who have not won since 1998.
“I switched to start something else, to see another type of motorbike, to experience something else with new teammates and team spirit,” Despres said.
“It’s certainly not easy but it’s very exciting. And it’s true that there was a little joke with Stephane Peterhansel, who told me that I was close to winning the same number of victories as him and it would be good to see it on a blue [Yamaha] motorbike,” he said. “And there you go, seven months later, the joke has become a reality.”
Despres said that beating Peterhansel’s motorbike record was “clearly not my goal.”
“I fight to win races, but I don’t wake up during the night telling myself that I have to win a sixth trophy,” said.